What's Wrong with David McCullough's Kind of History?


Mr. Greenberg is the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image (2003). He teaches history at Rutgers University.

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This month marks the publication of 1776, David McCullough's rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence. It's safe to predict that 1776—the latest in a series of heavily hyped history blockbusters—will vault to the top of the best-seller lists, beguiling readers with its reverent portrait of Washington's heroism and the dulcet cadences of McCullough's finely wrought prose.

It will also drive many academic historians up the wall.

Our exasperation will stem partly, to be sure, from envy of McCullough's undeniable gift for storytelling and of his smashing popularity. But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered. McCullough's fans won't care. They typically have little use for what they regard—not always wrongly—as the narrowly focused, politically correct, jargon-clotted academic monographs that dwell on arcane issues instead of big, meaty topics like politics, diplomacy, and war.

Instead of grumbling over the public's middlebrow book buying tastes, the best thing academic historians can do is to try to offer them something better. A number of our own practices lead us away from engaging the public as we should. I've seen students entering graduate school aspiring to write like Arthur Schlesinger, only to be shunted into producing pinched, monographic studies. I've seen conferences full of brilliant minds unable to find an interesting presentation to attend that isn't literally read off the page in a soporific drone. We write too much for each other—and, as we do, a public hungry for good history walks into Barnes & Noble and gets handed vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as"magisterial" or"definitive."

Thankfully, historians now seem to be recognizing all this as a problem. At one point, many academics seemed to consider popularity a first step into the Hades of commercialization and dumbing down. But today, most of my peers, myself included, seem eager to publish with trade presses, to write op-ed pieces about our research, or to appear on NPR and Charlie Rose—not just because we want the ego boost (though who wouldn't?), but because we enjoy discovering new audiences who respond intelligently to our ideas. Indeed, although the chasm between popular and scholarly history is real, a number of historians, inside and outside the academy, have been able to develop a wide following with quality work.

Though the age of the historical blockbuster has made the rift between the scholarly and the popular more acute, the divide itself is quite old. In the 1930s, the former journalist and Ph.D.-less Columbia University historian Allan Nevins was so fed up with his colleagues' disregard for the public that he went on to found American Heritage magazine and the Society for American History to promote accessible history. In That Noble Dream, his chronicle of the historical profession, Peter Novick noted that in the 1950s"a work of serious scholarship, like Garrett Mattingly's The Armada, might achieve popular success, but for the most part best-sellerdom was reserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland and Barbara Tuchman, whom most professional historians … regarded as the equivalent of chiropractors and neuropaths."

The 1950s were also a heyday for public intellectuals—a time when Daniel Boorstin, Oscar Handlin, Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward published widely read histories of lasting value. But the moment passed quickly. In the 1960s, a new generation of scholars sought to write history"from the bottom up," examining the stories of laborers, women, blacks, immigrants, and other neglected groups. This new generation expanded our historical knowledge as none had before. But their work displaced the accounts of military derring-do or inside political dope that the public craved. And the awareness of the diversity of the American experience undermined the very possibility of generalizing about the American past—a necessary and overdue realization, but one that meant, sadly, that grand, self-confident books like David Potter's People of Plenty or Hofstadter's American Political Tradition were unlikely to come along soon.

In their discussions about how to reach a wider audience without sacrificing rigor, historians and lay critics have offered several diagnoses of the problem. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, many are simple, neat, and, if not wrong, then incomplete. Let me review a few, before moving on to my own assessment of the problem.

Academic vs. popular history. Many people see the dilemma as simply a matter of professors versus journalists, or professionals versus amateurs. But that dichotomy isn't very useful. There are academic historians with Ph.D.s, such as the late Stephen Ambrose, who write best sellers and blanket the media but command little scholarly respect. Historian Howard Zinn delivered the new social history to millions of readers, but most professors probably consider his People's History of the United States to be, in Michael Kazin's words,"bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions." Meanwhile, many journalists who write about the past—Taylor Branch, Neal Gabler, Anthony Lukas—wind up in scholarly footnotes and classroom syllabi. Clearly, the lines have been scrambled. How, after all, should we classify a respected historian like Garry Wills, who earned a Ph.D. in classics, became a reporter, and is now an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern? (Wills' unashamed use of the"adjunct" title gives succor to nontenure-track professors everywhere.) In short, institutional status hardly correlates with quality.

Monographs vs. synthesis. Two decades ago, Thomas Bender of New York University called on historians to write more"syntheses": those broadly conceived stories that integrate monographic work into their wider contexts. Although sympathetic to the social historians who had debunked the old master narratives, Bender noted that they hadn't yet taken the next step of refashioning new ones. (Although since Bender wrote, books like Eric Foner's Story of American Freedom and Nell Painter's Standing at Armageddon have tried to do just that.)

Bender had a point. We've all seen lists of the obscure or narrow subjects that make for paper titles at conferences or published monographs. (Full disclosure: I once lost out on a job to a scholar whose dissertation was titled,"Metal of Honor: Montana's World War II Homefront, Movies, and the Social Politics of White Male Anxiety." It may be quite good for all I know.) Yet other historians have shown that monographic work need not alienate readers. The academic genre of"microhistory"—using a close study of a single moment or culture to open up wider vistas on the past—has lately found popular expression, and not always in the debased"vegetable-that-changed-history" form that has become ubiquitous (e.g. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World; Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, etc.). Books such as Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan's blow-by-blow account of the Versailles conference, or Triangle, David von Drehle's narrative of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, take a snapshot of a crucial moment in time and tease out its wider import. A narrow focus need not sacrifice relevance.

"Conservative" political history vs." radical" social history. Sometimes the problem with academic history is seen as a political one—a left-wing obsession with the plight of dispossessed groups. (Conversely, the problem with blockbusters is seen to be their essentially conservative celebration of American heroes.) But while the parade of lives of the founders does encourage mindless veneration, and the parade of dissertations proving some group's hitherto uncredited"agency" does get tiresome, politics isn't the real problem. Acclaimed crossover books like Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence and Geoffrey R. Stone's Perilous Times show that political, diplomatic, legal, and military history aren't inherently conservative, and prize-winning academic works such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Midwife's Tale and Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice show that race and gender history can have wide appeal. Besides, there's a lot of social history that, while radical in its politics, is retrograde in another sense—tinged with a sentimental celebration of"average Americans" that no more prods us to critical reflection than does a Richard Brookhiser biography of Alexander Hamilton.

Narrative vs. analysis. Another common diagnosis of history's ills, notably advanced in a 1979 essay by the late Lawrence Stone, is that it has forsaken the telling of stories. Concerned that the influence of social science had desiccated academic history in the 1960s and '70s, Stone urged his colleagues to revive the time-honored mode of narrative"to make their findings accessible once more to an intelligent but not expert reading public, which is eager to learn … but cannot stomach indigestible statistical tables [and] dry analytical argument." Every few years since, someone renews the call. Often he or she touts a fine example of the genre, such as John Demos' Unredeemed Captive—which proved, incidentally, that a gripping plot need not entail exalting the deeds of presidents and generals over average folk.

Again, the diagnosis is incomplete. Good narratives succeed not only because they contain colorful characters and gripping plot lines, but also because the authors integrate analysis into their selection of material, chapter structure, and word choices. Two narrative histories I recently reviewed, Dominic Sandbrook's Eugene McCarthy and Geoffrey Kabaservice's The Guardians, are page-turners that will nonetheless attract academic readers with their sophisticated analyses. Besides, historians from Hofstadter in the 1950s to my Rutgers colleague Jackson Lears today find wide audiences with works propelled more by argument than by drama. Most readers can appreciate ideas intermingled with people and events.

Jargon vs. Clear Writing. Perhaps the most common complaint about academics is that they simply don't write well. If only we could string a few coherent sentences together, the public would show interest. And in history, which readers rightly expect to be accessible, bad writing is especially egregious, as Peter Novick, among others, has noted. Writing about the Bancroft Prize-winning 1973 study Time on the Cross, Novick marveled that"historians who wanted to know the basis for Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's conclusion that slaves were only moderately exploited were told that the answer was:

Nor were the social-science types alone in their guilt. Increasingly, humanists were guilty of obfuscation, too. Consider a 1986 work of intellectual history described by Novick in which the author"helpfully provided a glossary of such terms as 'distransitivity,' 'actantial/actant,' and 'psychologeme,' [but] … no entries for terms which presumably all but the hopelessly illiterate commanded, like 'chrononym,' 'dromomatics,' and 'intradiegetic.'"

Obviously, the academy should reward lucid writing more than it does. But simply banishing jargon or tarting up our prose won't bridge the academic-popular divide. There are many ways to write well, and even jargon can have its place, if properly explained. (Most historians would agree that"presentism" is a genuinely useful concept, to which readers can be introduced rather painlessly.) And sometimes a good enough book can persuade readers to slog through its dense prose, as for example Eugene Genovese's history of slave life, Roll, Jordan, Roll, demonstrates.

If good history can't be reduced to a synthetic approach, a concern with politics, a rousing narrative, or even clear writing, then what might academics do differently?

Are Popular Histories Vapid?

In the first part of this piece, I suggested that if academic historians like me cringe at the bottomless public appetite for lives of the founders and jolly but bland historical narratives, we should try to write serious scholarship for a general audience. The question is how to do it.

Here's my best shot at an answer: The key to attracting more readers without sacrificing rigor lies in the ways that historians define their topics. If a book is conceived with only historiography in mind—with academic disciplinary debates and research agendas dictating the focus and the form—it's unlikely to succeed in the public realm. If it's conceived without historiography in mind, it's unlikely to succeed as scholarship. I'd propose what might be called a Goldilocks approach to historiography.

How do historians choose what to write about? What Bernard Bailyn wrote in 1963 largely holds true today:

Historians decide to study and write about something because they observe that in the present state of the historical literature there is a need for such work, a need in the sense that proper utilization of the resources has not been made. ... A second group of topics seems to be defined ... by observations concerning the state of historical knowledge itself. These are topics that are suggested by what appear to be gaps in out knowledge. ... A third group of topics is defined by the observation of (1) anomalies in the existing data, or (2) discrepancies in between the data and existing explanations.

In short, professional historians select their areas of research not by looking at history but by surveying the historiography—the ongoing debates among scholars about what are often highly refined or technical points of a subject—and then staking out a new sliver of the established academic terrain.

This quasi-scientific approach grew out of the rise of social science, professionalism, and the research university in the late 19th century. As academic historians became a self-conscious guild, they endorsed the premise that as trained experts, operating dispassionately, they could build a base of knowledge to which subsequent generations would incrementally add. While few of us today consider history a"science," most share the belief—or hope—that the steady accretion of knowledge will over time broaden our understanding of the past. Assumptions like these lead scholars to fashion small bricks to be stacked upon the historical edifice.

Attending to historiography sometimes makes good sense: If the literature on the civil rights movement focuses on political leaders such as the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, look at the grassroots activists in North Carolina or Mississippi. If political history dwells on moments of great liberal achievement, examine the conservative revolution no one saw coming.

But too often this approach to conceiving a topic alienates readers unversed in historiographical debates—which is to say most readers, even within the academy. It discourages creativity, eccentricity, or straying outside the bounds delimited by the dominant figures in a given field. It places professional practices and disciplinary goals above intellectual ones.

Younger historians especially are encouraged to follow the terms other historians have set out—to borrow a favorite scholar's template (how one ethnic group or another"became white") or to dispute a reigning interpretation (a particular movement began a decade before commonly supposed). Either formula can lead to color-by-numbers history. Meanwhile, topics that don't fall squarely into any current historiographic niche may get overlooked unless a skilled amateur historian takes them on, as Nicholas Lemann did with his history of the meritocracy, The Big Test, or Steven Weisman did with his genesis of the income tax, The Great Tax Wars.

But if immersion in historiography (rather than history itself) has distanced scholars from the public, operating in ignorance of historiography has even more dire pitfalls. David McCullough, Edmund Morris, and other popular chroniclers display an indifference to historiography that makes their books seem naive, even empty. In a scathing review of Morris's Theodore Rex (2001) in the New Republic, Princeton historian Christine Stansell noted that while scholars have recently put forward"rich and critical interpretations" of Theodore Roosevelt—focusing on his belief in eugenics, his preening masculinity, his nativism, his unfulfilled conservationism—Morris showed no interest in, or awareness of, any of them. Though the book he produced sold phenomenally, it generated no lasting ideas, no new perspectives.

The major failing of much popular history is that it betrays no interest in making intellectual contributions to our understanding of an issue. The Barnes & Noble historian seems to treat history as a pageant of larger-than-life events and people to be marveled at, rather than a set of social, political, and cultural problems to engage. Unless you wrestle with the ways in which the problems of the past have been defined, interpreted, ignored, or mischaracterized by other historians—the historiography—your writing will seem unsophisticated. You won't know which of your ideas are novel or trite, simple or complex, suspiciously trendy or embarrassingly out of date, or what avenues of research have already been pursued. Historians have to try to build upon what's been written, while keeping in mind that the goal is broader than just revising or applying other scholars' findings.

Good history, then, is written in awareness of the historiography but addressed to it only indirectly.

Consider an example. When Gordon Wood published his Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), one academic reviewer marveled that"Not a single historian's name appears in the main text." Shouldn't all (or most) history read this way? Wood didn't neglect historiographic concerns by any means. His book was a richer, more confident, and more expansive culmination of work that he, Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, and others had done years before on the ways that radical ideas of republicanism—and not only classical liberalism—had informed the thinking of the Revolutionaries. Hardly a popularization like many recent accounts of the Revolution, the book earned good reviews and the Pulitzer Prize. But nowhere did Wood flaunt his erudition or or address his argument directly to colleagues. He relegated the historiography to his copious footnotes, leaving the narrative uncluttered and welcoming to readers of all kinds. Certainly many scholars argued with his characterization of the Revolution as"radical." But stirring up debate is one mark of having pursued a significant idea, and the robustness of argument proved the relevance of Wood's perspective to future scholarship.

Wood is hardly alone. Crossover works of history are not hard to find, as I've tried to suggest, even if they remain the exception rather than the rule. In recent years, such pre-eminent historians as David Hackett Fischer and Edmund Morgan have made it onto the best-seller lists—the 89-year-old Morgan with an elegant biography of Benjamin Franklin; the prolific Fischer with Washington's Crossing, an account of the Continental Army's New Jersey campaign that integrates research on specialized but important topics like Colonial notions of virtue and honor (and even devotes 33 pages to historiography in an appendix that doesn't intrude on his story).

In other ways, too, there are indications of a rapprochement between the academic and the popular. Journalists such as David Maraniss and Richard Reeves show up at conferences to speak about Vietnam or the Nixon presidency. University presses tout lists with titles that trade presses might typically offer, and they bid on manuscripts with sales potential. Even the American Historical Association has shown signs of reaching out: It recently created a prize for the promotion of history. The recipients so far include Sen. Robert Byrd and C-SPAN's Brian Lamb.

None of this will mean that the McCulloughs and Morrises will cede the spotlight to the Morgans and Fischers. But Barbara Tuchman's page-turners didn't keep readers from appreciating C. Vann Woodward's analyses, and today's blockbusters shouldn't keep academic historians from striving for readers. Because the two groups, in the end, are really doing very different things.

The British-based historian David Lowenthal (technically a"geographer") has written about the differences between history and what the British call"heritage": the commemorations of the past found in museums, folklore, pop culture, and the like. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, tour a battlefield, or enjoy presidential trivia, we're not trying to probe the problems of the past—to think hard about whether the Constitution betrayed or affirmed the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, or about the origins of the Civil War. We're looking to reaffirm our national or ethnic identity, to venerate our ancestors, to inspire wonder, or to instill patriotism or a sense of group solidarity. This is what people are looking to do when they read books by David McCullough.

Thus in some sense it is unfair, or at least beside the point, to attack heritage for not being history—like attacking Star Wars for not being 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although we need critics who will expose the perils of the historical blockbuster trend and show us more substantial ways to think about the past, we should also recognize the two modes have different functions, different aims. There ought to be a place in society for both heritage and history, provided that we retain a keen sense of the difference.

NOTE: I drew on many books in writing this piece and would have footnoted them in a book or scholarly article. That's not the convention at Slate. But I want to note that especially valuable to me were Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The"Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession and David Lowenthal's The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History.

This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.